Fahrenheit 212

Craig Chalquist

An archetale of the Assembling Terrania Cycle


“It’s almost time to boil the water,” Enduanna announced as Montag walked a familiar sidewalk down a street he could hardly recognize.

Fifteen years ago, he had set his own house ablaze here not long after the death of Clarisse, the talkative teen who had awakened him to his own precious unhappiness. Having burned down Captain Beatty, he fled on foot, a defunct fireman, while half the city watched the pursuit. It had ended only with the nuclear war that had devastated much of the city, killing his vacant wife Mildred and many neighbors he had hardly known.

Near the rusting railroad tracks outside the doomed city he had met the Book People: former scholars, professors, and autodidacts living on the edge, not daring even to own a book of the kind Montag’s job had been to burn. Reading had been illegal, so the wanderers carried their books in their heads: one old man knowing all of Shakespeare, an old woman steeped in Alice Walker, another mentally keeping the Tao Te Ching. Book People specialized not only the classics, but in many kinds of literature, with some even safeguarding science fiction: Le Guin, Butler, Wells, Bradbury…

Fifteen years: not so much of reconstructing the city and the decimated civilization beyond it as dreaming, constructing, and re-constructing anew. So many needs to consider: homes, power, tools, food, community, all built to flourish during the long nuclear winter that killed crops and set bands of raiding survivalists against one another.

Take the city printing press for example: although it could turn out books and articles, flyers and posters on paper, that scarce material had been replaced by husks, straw, bamboo, hemp, flax, cordage, and other odds and ends formerly considered “waste.” Now, like so much other rubbish left over from the initial blast, it was reformed into useful products for people learning the hard lessons of frugality and resilience, lessons the former residents and their government had ignored.

At one time it had been a pleasure to burn, Montag reflected. It was time now to build.

The Takers didn’t realize that.

Most of the marauders outside the walls of this and other cities struggling to rise after the war had killed each other off. One group, however, had thrived. Reactivating military materiel, they had come in on tanks and armored personnel carriers, from which poured would-be troops armed with rifles and semiautomatic pistols, the technology of lasers and stunners and aerial assault vehicles beyond them.

Upon the city they had imposed a tyranny from the top down: martial law, brigands guarding the streets, armed control of crops and formerly public labor. The only “government” was a cabal of four brothers, one a “Colonel” who acted as supreme dictator.

Only gradually did their secret emerge: most of them could not read the technical manuals needed to maintain their equipment. Some of it was already falling apart.

“We need you Book People to teach us to read those manuals,” “Colonel” Jerry Sarken told Montag. It was phrased politely, one reasonable man talking to another, but the “or else” gleamed from the polished barrels of the guns held by the omnipresent guards.

And to teach their children to read. In most Taker homes, Book People received a food allowance to do just that. As a key Book People spokesman, Montag taught Sarken’s daughter Enduanna, whose mother Michelle was about to give birth to another daughter.

Montag was surprised by how much affection he developed for his eight-year-old charge, and how much pity for her mother. Like most city women, they were ordered to remain at home most of the time regardless of aptitudes or interests.

Montag tossed Enduanna his old lighter. He had dropped the legendary 451 igniter fifteen years ago but kept the small salamander-shaped tool, perhaps as a reminder. It still worked.

She caught it, pocketed it, and turned a cartwheel. “I hear my father sent for you.” No brush could control her curly brown hair for long.

“He did.” Montag tried to keep the anxiety out of his voice. He had a feeling it would be a highly unpleasant meeting, and perhaps a lethal one. He wondered whether he would ever see her again.

“I have second sight, you know.”

“I know. You are a kinetic bundle of many amazing talents.”

She shook her head and made a farting noise with her lips, then giggled. She had the childhood knack of hiding her seriousness while knowing perfectly well what was at stake.

“It will go fine,” she said, flapping her arms as she skipped. “Hard, but fine. See you for my reading lessons later. I hate old Ecclesiastes sometimes, or Solomon or whatever his name is, but let’s see what he does next.”

“See you then.”

The captain’s office in the old city firehouse had been redecorated when the Taker “army”—more a heavily armed mob, really—came this way and stayed. Montag entered through the solid (and bar-able) double doors, glancing around at the rich red drapes, the looted paintings of French ponds and meadows, the thick-armed golden chair that served its occupant as a throne. The former radio room wall had been knocked out to enlarge the chamber.

Sarken signed something and dismissed a man in khaki. Another, holding a rifle, took up a position next to the closing door. Montag’s sense of foreboding increased.

“Sit down, Montag,” Sarken ordered as he sat on his massive seat and laid his arms on top of the chair’s. Montag looked across at him and saw a craggy white face. Graying brows that always seemed to frown above expressionless blue eyes. Hair: thinning and combed over to the right. An upper lip that never moved when he spoke: a mannerism cultivated to convey decision. His military-seeming uniform held plenty of colorful décor to suggest a lifetime of battle victories rather than, say, fifteen years of predation upon helpless hamlets and city remnants.

Montag knew what the other saw: black hair and brows framing a dark face, with lines around the mouth and a shadow that no shave ever came close to removing.

“It has been a busy day,” Sarken commented.

“I have just heard that your wife’s delivery may be soon.”

Frown converted into a smirk. “Just what we need, another girl. A boy would have been more useful, lineage-wise.”

Montag said nothing, waiting.

“What do you think of my daughter?”

“She is a delight. Bright, intuitive, quick, outgoing, with a retentive memory and a bundle of talents to develop.” He wanted to add, And she has soul, but he didn’t.

“How’s her reading ability?”

“Well above average.”

“That’s good. It’s a pity you won’t be able to teach her anymore.”

Montag’s heart gave out one savage pulse and contracted.

“Don’t you want to know why?”

Montag nodded.

“You and the other Book People mentors aren’t teaching us and our children to read technical manuals. You’re teaching us Chinese and Egyptian philosophy, Western ethics and literature, Cervantes, Morrison, and the like.”

“We use literature and philosophy as exercise material, nothing more.”

Sarken’s voice rose. “Nothing more? Then how come our young people are asking questions that spring from what you call ‘nothing more’? Black people think Malcolm X and the Invisible Man and John Lewis, names they hadn’t heard before, are cool. What the hell? And who gave any of you permission to bring up the 13th Amendment to the former U.S. Constitution? One of my brothers said his son just asked him why so much of what we do goes against ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ My own daughter now believes that Earth, matter, and the entire cosmos are alive and sensitive to how we act.”

“But sir, you watch our every move.” Cameras were required in every enclosed space.

Sarken lit a cigar. “All you do about that is put on plays for the watchers. Plays based on the literature, but cleverly renamed. Little wonder we have such a turnover in our surveillance now. Prospero shows up as The Spellbinder, and Caleban as The Oppressed. Our people who watch all this are basically defecting, and you know it.”

“Sir, I don’t see how we can fulfil our teaching obligations without mental exercises.”

“I do. I’ve had a team working on exactly that question for several months. As a result, we’re going to begin retiring you Book People, starting with you. We don’t need you anymore.”

Montag nodded, not trusting himself to speak. The fire he had turned away from more than a decade ago had relit inside his chest and belly.

Sarken shook his head and sat back. “I remember when we came here, how surprised we were. No defenders to hold us off. Oh sure, you hid some of the crops, spiked some equipment, hid the press, and the like. But it always felt half-hearted to me. I’m beginning to understand why.”

“Our philosophy is one of peaceful collaboration. That is why we opened our granaries and distilleries and water sources to you.”

“Nonsense. You opened them because our guns were pointed at you.”

“Our policy has always been to help those who ask.”

“But we did not ask. There’s a reason we’re known as Takers.” He chuckled and went on:

“It took me a long look in the mirror, but I finally figured out what makes you Book People dangerous. In the end, it’s not so different from what makes me dangerous, besides all the hardware and the troops and the following and flags.”

Montag shook his head. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Purpose! I’m talking about purpose. That’s what you really arm yourselves with.”

“We aren’t armed. We’re just mentors sharing knowledge.”

“Exactly what the Serpent in the Garden said to Adam and Eve, eh? The mistake authorities like me have always made about intellectuals like you is that your learning and knowledge is speculative, idealistic, and unrealistic. The Book People work hard to foment that delusion, just as you did before the war.

“I know better. I won out there”—he pointed out the window to the world beyond—“because I gave my people what you give your students: a sense of purpose. You don’t tell them how to survive. You tell them why survival is worth struggling for. You give them hope. And hope above all is what we’re out to suppress. Forever. Hopeful people cannot be led.”

He pressed a button on the chair arm and the doors opened. He rose.

“That is why I’ve decided to enlist you to bolster my sense of purpose, my great cause. Come with me.”

As he passed the guard, he nodded. “Bring me the equipment now.”

Making their way through the fire station, they existed out the back into a dry lot ringed with weeds and broken, rusting chain link fences. Beatty’s men used to come out here to smoke.

In the center of the field stood a tall pile of books. Montag guessed at several hundred.

“As you see, we have been busy,” remarked Sarken as a guard holding a camera approached. “Over there”—and the cameraman stood off a dozen feet, focusing on the books.

The other guard approached and handed Sarken a flame-thrower.

“Surprised to see this?” he asked Montag. “We found this beauty in the basement. Does it bring back any memories? I believe you used another version of this compact model to kill your former boss before you went on the run. They built pretty well in the old days.

“Let me explain to you how this will work,” he said as another guard stood just beyond Montag, rifle aimed at him.

Sarken pointed at the books:

“I’m going to give you this flame-thrower. You will use it to torch those books. Simple, no? We’ll record it and broadcast it.” The Worldwide Web was gone, but regional wireless had sprung up here and there. Knitting it together globally was only a matter of time now.

“My marketers will then insert the footage into our new campaign. We’re calling it ‘Strength in Numbers.’ Guess who the new enemies of the state will be? Anyone interested in the deep stuff: literature, philosophy, poetry, spirituality. Anti-patriotic garbage. It deserves to burn. And it will. Then we will torch the press.”

“You’re too late,” said Montag. “That pile only represents a handful of works. We’ve made copy upon copy after copy and sent them around the world, not only physically but electronically, in every conceivable medium. You can’t destroy them all.”

“We won’t have to. The importance of this act of yours will be symbolic. You, the best-known of all Book People, will get us going on the true path of loyalty. How’s that for a rallying cause?”

“Your young people won’t rally. We’ve been teaching them for too long. You’ll merely trigger a revolt that will consume you.

“Because you’re right in just this sense: we offer purpose, and hope for something better. We are the midwives of England that keep alive English, a fragile homegrown language, in spite of Viking persecution. We are the writers in secluded monasteries laboring as the Dark Ages unroll beyond the windows. We are the slaves who support each other in hidden public homeplaces outside official scrutiny, and sometimes under the very noses of our masters.

“We convey the why, not the how. And people who have learned to be unhappy, as I did, will not only live by the why, but die for it.” As I will, he thought. No use mincing words anymore. He had lived long enough to be of use; the rest was in the hands of the gods.

He looked at the flame-thrower. “I refuse to burn those books,” he said. “My book-burning days are long past.”

“So be it. I find a certain poetic irony in lighting you up, the first beacon on the new path forward. History will record this moment as the beginning of the next phase of restoring humanity beyond hope, a destiny of carefully imposed order, authority, and control. Most will long for it.”

But they will never lead, thought Montag. Or create. Or truly give themselves, imagine far, or love…

In the cold gaze of the camera eye, Sharken shouldered the flame-thrower and pointed it at Montag. Who took a deep breath and waited for the agony. Although excruciating, at least it would end in a moment or two…

A stream of bright flame splashed back from the nozzle onto Sharken’s hands, face, chest, and abdomen. He dropped the flame-thrower and ran screaming in circles as the shocked guards stepped back. None moved to try to put the fire out.

Sarken beat his melting fists against his face and dropped to his knees. Montag smelled burning flesh and almost retched.

Finally, the flaming, blackening corpse sagged sideways, dark smoke roiling skyward from it. The face was no longer distinguishable. A few false medals gleamed on the ground nearby.

Montag stepped over to the filming guard, whose camera had captured everything in trembling hands. “Is this going out live?” he asked.

The guard nodded numbly, his eyes fixed in horror on the body of his former commander. “To a small number of people. We wanted to do some editing first.”

“You’ll all have a lot more to do than edit soon.”

The ruling brothers found no one to pin blame on. The nozzle of the flame-thrower had been reversed as part of the general sabotage of potentially dangerous equipment when the Takers invaded the city. The invaders could no longer read the safety manuals, so none, including Sarken, had recognized the reversal. Whether his technical team had, including the camera operator, was anyone’s guess.

“What news?” Montag asked Michelle, widow of the deceased. She and Enduanna lived in a cottage assigned to her in the hills above the city, the defunct “Colonel” not having wanted to live with her.

“The brothers are fighting one another for supremacy. It looks like a bloodbath. Very little will survive of the cabal. The troops are wondering about their status; everyone who saw the film was demoralized. We are all wondering what will become of us.” She held her newborn daughter as Enduanna looked at her tiny sister with curiosity.

Outside the city, Taker factions pummeled each other: ignorant armies clashing by night. Little would be left by morning. The Road Warrior future had never been viable. Humanity, a gregarious species, could not survive without cooperation.

“The Mayor is about to issue a clemency,” said Montag. “We welcome all of you to join the collaborative democracy we are putting back into place. It will be quite different from what you are accustomed to. I think you will prefer it.” He smiled at Enduanna, who winked at him.

“Toldya it would work out,” she said. Having never felt close to her father, she did not mourn him, although Montag guessed some set of emotions would surface eventually.

“Here’s your lighter back.” She placed it in his hand.

He stared at it, thinking.

Fahrenheit 212: the temperature at which water boiled. The temperature for sterilizing medical instruments, then, cooled down, for washing mother and child. The temperature for welcoming new life into the world.

To everything there is a season. A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear and to mend. A time to grieve, yes, and a time to be born: a time for something new (contra Ecclesiastes) under the sun…but not, today, a time to die.